A Second Home
Upon moving to New York City at age fourteen to complete my dance training at the School of American Ballet (SAB), I made a very important discovery. My new address, 70 Lincoln Center Plaza, was directly across West Sixty-fifth Street from a true international treasure, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. For a young ballet dancer like myself, one immeasurably passionate about the history and life of my art form, I had found a second home in the library’s Jerome Robbins Dance Division.
My use of the library has become more layered over time. In my first days as an SAB student, I studied countless New York City Ballet (NYCB) archival performance films of Patricia McBride. This remarkable George Balanchine muse had been my teacher in my early dance training in my hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina. Ms. McBride’s instruction and her direct link to George Balanchine were my primary motivations for coming to NYC. I longed to be part of Balanchine’s company and to immerse myself in his aesthetic. Training at his school was the first piece of realizing that dream.
Image 1: Patricia McBride and Nicholas Magallanes, in the New York City Ballet production of "Serenade" with Suzanne Farrell and Allegra Kent on floor, choreography by George Balanchine. ©The George Balanchine Trust. Photograph by Martha Swope.
Image 2. New York City Ballet rehearsal of "Glinkiana" with George Balanchine and Patricia McBride, choreography by George Balanchine. ©The George Balanchine Trust. BALANCHINE is a Trademark of the George Balanchine Trust. Photograph by Martha Swope.
I had spent much of my childhood in North Carolina reading and watching everything that I could find about ballet. So I felt immensely privileged to have many of the same luminaries I had grown up researching as my SAB instructors. I began to study the Dance Division’s moving image recordings of these teachers in their performing years with the NYCB. In this manner, the library’s collection powerfully underscored my daily classroom training at SAB. For example, I could learn the intricacies of pas de deux work from Jock Soto in the studio, and then cross the street to watch him embody those very qualities in an archival videorecording of Balanchine’s Allegro Brilliante (Call number: *MGZIDVD 5-2154). I have had many delightful conversations with my teachers through the years that began along the lines of, “I just saw a tape of you dancing in ______ at the library.”
The Dance Division’s holdings also helped me prepare for two special milestones in my final year at SAB, the first of which was having the opportunity to teach class at SAB. Peter Martins had selected me as one of two students who were to be SAB’s first-ever student teachers. Through this program, I taught four Intermediate Men’s ballet classes. Mr. Martins observed my teaching and then met with me to offer constructive feedback. As part of my own pedagogical preparations, I revisited the library’s videorecordings of George Balanchine’s NYCB company classes and of Stanley Williams’s SAB men’s classes, so that I could incorporate some of their particular exercises and nuances into my own teaching. (Balanchine Class, call numbers *MGZIDVD 5-5887 and *MGZIDVD 5-5886; Williams teaching can be found in call numbers *MGZIA 4-5514,*MGZIA 4-6092 JRC, *MGZIA 4-6097 JRC, *MGZIA 4-6090 JRC, *MGZIA 4-6089 JRC.)
The library’s collection also assisted me as I rehearsed for my graduation Workshop Performances at SAB in my final semester as a student. I danced the classical lead in Balanchine’s Cortège Hongrois. The films that I watched of past NYCB and SAB Workshop presentations of the ballet proved to be an excellent resource. I found inspiration in Adam Lüders’s technical refinement and in Sean Lavery’s warm exuberance as they danced the role, especially because they were both, like me, towering dancers (I am six foot four) (Lüders, call number *MGZIDVD 5-3755, Lavery; call number *MGZIDVD 5-3428). With the case of Mr. Lavery, I had the good fortune of being his student for my first three years at SAB. He had been wonderfully nurturing and encouraging to me. I felt honored to inherit one of his roles.
The library served me very well during all my SAB days. Now, as a dancer with NYCB, it continues to do so. I now use the collection to illuminate the ballets that the company is performing at any given time, especially those in which I will be appearing. Every night of the ballet season, I am either onstage or watching in the audience. This is a constant education of practice and observation. My hours in the Dance Division bolster both. This essay documents my process of discovery as I studied the specific works presented at NYCB between the fall of 2014 and the spring of 2015.
The Same Joy
Upon beginning this project, I felt both excited about where my research into the current repertory might lead me and a bit daunted by the innumerable possibilities. The quantity and quality of the NYCB’s annual workload is unique, and I think unsurpassed, in all the world. I spent the fall season and its preceding rehearsal period performing, watching, and researching at the library about the ballets at hand. But I was still unsure about what the focus of my writing would be. I knew that any one of these ballets could be a sufficient topic in itself. But I wanted to find a broad, unifying lens through which I could consider several different works.
Then, about a week into the December Nutcracker season, I found my frame of reference. I was stretching in the back of the David H. Koch Theater’s Main Hall after my morning company class, observing the rehearsal that was taking place for the Act III “Tarantella” from August Bournonville’s Napoli. Nilas Martins was teaching these lively steps to principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Sara Mearns. Nilas, son of NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins, is himself a former NYCB principal dancer and a product of the Royal Danish Ballet. These Balanchine-trained dancers received and realized these Bournonville movements with such ease, innately understanding their construction and musicality. The course of my study was set. I would use the library’s collection to explore the artistic bonds between George Balanchine (1904-1983) and August Bournonville (1805-1879), two balletic titans.
The timing was absolutely right. Bournonville was to be the star of the company’s spring gala. His La Sylphide was being staged for the company as well as Bournonville Divertissements, a veritable highlight reel of pure dance excerpts from his other ballets (including Napoli). I could be on the inside of both his and Mr. Balanchine’s works simultaneously, since I was already rehearsing the Act I reel from La Sylphide and performing in a string of Balanchine ballets: Chaconne, La Valse, The Nutcracker, Cortège Hongrois, and the “Theme and Variations” section of Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3.
One of the first films I watched at the library after this clarification was a 1982 interview with Peter Martins regarding the PBS broadcast of NYCB’s performance of Bournonville Dances (call number *MGZIC 9-4815). Martins said, “I can imagine that the people who worked under Bournonville had the same joy that we people who work under Balanchine have.” Both groups had the rare privilege of working under the guidance of genius. As a Bournonville-trained Dane and as Balanchine’s successor as Ballet Master in Chief of NYCB, Martins is singularly qualified to make such a statement. I know that I have derived some of that same joy from identifying and tracking various connections between Balanchine and Bournonville. I began to see how each man was teaching me about the other. Their works and words (recorded in their own writings and in interviews) not only had striking similarities, but also provided commentary on one other. It became ever clearer to me that I was observing a dialogue across the centuries between two like-minded masters. What here follows is the fruit of that investigation.
Little Children Shall Lead Them
George Balanchine and August Bournonville were both products of rich balletic traditions in Russia and Denmark, respectively. Each had a pivotal, vocation-affirming experience appearing on the stage during his boyhood. The eight-year-old Bournonville made his debut as the son of a Viking king in Vincenzo Galeotti’s ballet Lagertha in Copenhagen’s Court Theater. Bournonville later wrote of that night in his epic three-volume autobiography: “The whole thing was like a dream. . . I had now received my initiation" (My Theater Life, call number *MGYB [Bournonville] 79-4109).
The ten-year-old George Balanchine performed in the act I garland dance and as Cupid in Marius Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty in St. Petersburg’s legendary Mariinsky Theater. “Thanks to Sleeping Beauty, I fell in love with ballet,” he would later recall (Balanchine's Tchaikovsky: Conversations with Balanchine on His Life, Ballet, and Music, (call number *MGYB [Balanchine] 93-930). This comment is doubly important when one considers how up until this first performance opportunity, Balanchine was not at all convinced that ballet was for him. He wrote, “I was certain I had no aptitude for dancing and was wasting my time and the Czar’s money” (“How I Became a Dancer and Choreographer,” Balanchine’s New Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, call number: *MGYB 75-1415). But in the act of performing before an audience, Balanchine participated in the theatrical magic that his daily classroom work could produce. He was never the same again. He had found his element. “The theatre became a home to us, a natural place to be" (“How I Became a Dancer and Choreographer”).
Perhaps due to the impact of these early experiences, Bournonville and Balanchine featured children to marvelous effect in many of their works, oftentimes giving them weighty responsibilities in the overall picture of the ballet. I have enjoyed several of these firsthand. One such example is the Act I reel in Bournonville’s Scottish-themed La Sylphide, choreographed in 1836. This Highland reel takes place as part of the wedding celebrations for James, the ballet’s protagonist, and Effie, his betrothed. This is danced by a large corps de ballet of adult couples and several children’s couples. The choreography is almost identical for both groups. Bournonville expected the children of his Royal Danish Ballet School to rise to the level of the mature dancers’ precision and professionalism. Balanchine had similar expectations for his SAB students and choreographed accordingly. The common vision of these two masters is beautifully manifest as my fellow NYCB dancers and I join forces with our junior SAB colleagues to perform Bournonville’s choreography. These little ones from SAB do not miss a beat.
There is a charming moment at the beginning of the reel when Gurn, James’s close friend, is asking around the room for a partner. After being rejected by the ladies in his age group, he asks one of the little girls at the party to dance with him. She, being far happier to dance with an adult than Gurn is to be dancing with a child, proudly takes her place with her partner in the center of the adult corps de ballet’s front line. She leads the ensemble with aplomb, dancing all the same steps as her adult female counterparts. Bournonville weaves her and Gurn into the very center of his patterns. This moment is wittily rendered in the 1988 videorecording of the Royal Danish Ballet’s La Sylphide, starring Nikolaj Hübbe as James and Lis Jeppesen as the Sylph. Petrusjka Broholm, a former Royal Danish Ballet soloist, is the vivacious and knowledgeable guest ballet mistress teaching La Sylphide to my fellow NYCB dancers and me. She appears as a sylph in Act II of this particular video (call number *MGZIDVD 5-4282).
I could not help but notice that this mismatched couple joke is delightfully reversed in the act I Christmas Eve party scene of Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, in which I played one of the guests. The first group dance is for the children. Dr. Stahlbaum, the host, conducts the little boys through a series of brisk militaristic movements as his wife, Frau Stahlbaum, leads the little girls through their own activities. When the time comes for the children to mix, they neatly pair up.
Marie, the ballet’s petite and mighty heroine, has no trouble finding a partner. But her younger brother Fritz does not fare as well. He is turned down by all the little ladies. The joke is on him. Fritz, dejected and probably a bit embarrassed, has to proceed with his mother as his dancing partner. Both Bournonville and Balanchine had a sense of humor.
The Nutcracker is Balanchine’s masterwork for the children of his School of American Ballet. Of Balanchine’s production Edwin Denby wrote, “The Nutcracker is a fantasy ballet for children, like a toy that a grown-up makes with thoughtful care.” (“More Than Sweet Fantasy: The Content of Balanchine’s The Nutcracker,” Center, March 1954, call number *MGZA). Balanchine was that thoughtful grown-up toy-maker, inventing 63 roles in this one ballet for his young students. The steps that he gave them throughout are challenging yet perfectly age-appropriate. In making these children’s roles, Balanchine was able to revisit some of his early progress as a performer. His first role in the Mariinsky Theater production of Lev Ivanov’s The Nutcracker was that of a toy soldier in the Act I battle between the Nutcracker Prince’s troops and the Mouse King’s troops, which also happens to be a particularly vivid scene in his own production. The victory of the pint-sized army of toy soldiers is made all the more impressive by the fact they are in combat with mice that are played by adult male company dancers, a group of seemingly insurmountable foes. Balanchine entrusted these little children with the formidable task of guiding the audience through the whole arc of the story: Nuremberg-set Christmas Eve festivities to a nightmarish battle to a land of sweets.
Image 4. George Balanchine demonstrates for the Mouse King, David Richardson and Zina Bethune, in the New York City Ballet production of The Nutcracker, choreography by George Balanchine. ©The George Balanchine Trust. BALANCHINE is a Trademark of the Geor
Mime and Magic
Balanchine’s recollections of Ivanov’s The Nutcracker provided him with two passages that he transplanted wholly unchanged into his production of the ballet: the Nutcracker Prince’s act II pantomime (in which he recounts the tale of his and Marie’s journey to the Sugar Plum Fairy and the inhabitants of her land) and the Hoop Dance (which Balanchine presents as “Candy Canes”). He had performed both of these roles at the Mariinsky. In both, children are critical, the young boy who plays the Prince and the eight girls who serve as the corps de ballet for the adult “Candy Cane” soloist. In observing these two sections in particular, I began to see these moments as touchstones for Balanchine’s own larger creative contribution in his Nutcracker production. In the first, we see the precedent for all the pantomime in the ballet. In the second, we see the use of ballet vocabulary as a magical effect.
Every gesture of the Nutcracker Prince’s pantomime is set to the phrases of Tchaikovsky’s score. He tells the details of his epic battle with Tchaikovsky’s quotation of the Act I battle scene music as his accompaniment. This provides a visual and aural clarity for the audience as they interpret what the Nutcracker Prince is communicating. This is indicative of all the mime gestures in Balanchine’s production of The Nutcracker. The mimed and musical sentences are wedded. When the Sugarplum Fairy expresses how pleased she is by the Nutcracker Prince’s story, she lifts her arms over her head and extends them heavenward as the music similarly swells. The Sugarplum Fairy then dismisses her subjects who have gathered to greet Marie and her Prince. She sends them off in three separate groups, and a trumpet is heard for each. In the Act I party scene, there is a chord for the party guest’s toast, and there is a musical push-and-pull as the little girls play tug of war with the little boys for the hobby horse that has been brought by Marie’s magician godfather, Herr Drosselmeier.
There is also, unique to Balanchine’s production, an extended pantomime sequence immediately following the Act I party scene. Here, Marie comes back into the living room after all the Christmas Eve party guests have left. She is trying to find the Nutcracker doll that Drosselmeier gave her. She has obviously not been able to sleep without it, since she makes this re-entrance in her nightgown. Upon finding her beloved new doll, she holds it close and falls asleep on the living room’s couch. Frau Staulbaum enters, searching for her daughter. Relieved to find Marie on the couch, Frau Staulbaum places her shawl on the slumbering girl and exits. Drosselmeier then makes a mysterious appearance, gently taking the Nutcracker doll from Marie without waking her up. He quickly uses a tool to fix the doll, which had been damaged by an earlier attack from Fritz. He then disappears into the night.
All of this scene plays out to an excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s score for The Sleeping Beauty, in which there is a haunting and otherworldly violin solo. This music is heard in The Sleeping Beauty when the protagonist, Princess Aurora, awakes from her spell-induced century of sleep. In The Nutcracker, Balanchine uses this music as Marie enters into Drosselmeier’s spell through her sleep. The concertmaster’s musical tightrope walk and Drosselmeier’s gestures combine to create a sense of slight uneasiness and intrigue for the audience. There is the sense that everything is about to transform. Indeed it is. Marie’s Nutcracker doll is about to come to life, and she is about to be caught up into a wondrous adventure. This is all so appropriate when one remembers how the spell of The Sleeping Beauty had lured Balanchine into a balletic life when he was a youth. He was never the same again. Mr. Balanchine’s great delight in this special scene is particularly evident in the December 25, 1958, CBS television broadcast of NYCB in his The Nutcracker, in which he played the role of Herr Drosselmeier himself (call number:*MGZIDVD 5-4143).
Image 5. George Balanchine as Drosselmeyer, in the New York City Ballet production of The Nutcracker, choreography by George Balanchine. ©The George Balanchine Trust. BALANCHINE is a Trademark of the George Balanchine Trust. Photograph by Martha Swope.
This type of highly musical pantomime is also seen throughout Bournonville’s ballets. “I understand pantomime [as]. . . a harmonious and rhythmic series of picturesque poses, gathered from nature and the classical models, that. . . is in itself a dance,” Bournonville wrote (call number *MGYB [Bournonville] 79-4109). In the words of former Royal Danish Ballet principal dancer, Alexander Kolpin, Bournonville’s mime is “chained together” with the music and the larger choreographic language of the particular ballet (Bournonville ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet Company episode of the TV program Eye on Dance, call number *MGZIC 9-3051). The pantomime does not feel disjointed from the dance action of the story in Bournonville’s works. Rather, it seamlessly connects the ballet’s various situations. Bournonville had great respect for spoken drama. He thought that what could be achieved with words would “ever ensure the precedence of declamation,” especially in recounting past events and foretelling future ones (call number *MGYB [Bournonville] 79-4109). But he felt that pantomime “more forcefully describes the present” (call number *MGYB [Bournonville] 79-4109). Thus, pantomime best served his art of dance, where the immediacy of the moment is all.
The second child-led Ivanov quotation that illuminates Balanchine’s Nutcracker contribution is the Act II Hoop Dance. This is performed by an adult male soloist and eight girls, who are here presented not as people, but as “Candy Canes.” In the 1958 Nutcracker CBS telecast, Edward Villella (who had entered SAB as a little boy) dances the adult role brilliantly (call number *MGZIDVD 5-4143, Discs 1 & 2). The eight girls run on before their music and before their adult counterpart. They strike a pose, tendu croisé devant. This unmistakably classical position sets the tone for their divertissement. Their choreography that then follows, and that of the male soloist, is basic ballet vocabulary: soutenu, arabesque temps levé, cabriole, and pas de chat. But these classroom steps are imbued with magic.
Like these dancing “Candy Canes,” Balanchine allows only the enchanted characters in his Nutcracker to perform classical ballet steps. They are thus distinguished from their mortal counterparts, whose powers are limited to Act I’s basic social dances. When Drosselmeier opens two large gift boxes at the Staulbaum Christmas party, out step two life-sized dolls, the commedia dell’arte characters Harlequin and Columbine. They proceed to perform a short dance in classical style, complete with arabesque piqué, precipité, penchée, assemblé, and chaîné turns. Though none of these movements are inherently remarkable, their visual impact is stunning at this moment in the ballet. This is the audience’s first glimpse of balletic vocabulary. Thanks to Columbine, this is also the first time that the audience sees a pair of point shoes, the unique emblem of the female ballet dancer. Once he has placed Harlequin and Columbine back in their boxes, Drosselemeier presents another life-sized doll to entertain the party guests. This is a windup toy soldier. His short dance displays tour en l’air and entrechat six, both of which are stylized with flexed feet to further clarify that this is a wooden doll, not a man. This soldier doll punctuates his variation with a pirouette that lands on the knee. The music only really allows for two or three turns. But their effect is electric, since these are the first pirouettes seen in the entire ballet. With the completion of these two doll dances, the stage is set for Balanchine to systematically unfold the magical possibilities of ballet technique.
“The long Snowflakes waltz looks as if it used only a dozen elementary steps [arabesque temps levé, chassé en tournant, tour jeté, saut de chat, relevé passé, emboîté, etc.], but it is one of Balanchine’s most magical inventions,” wrote David Denby. ("More Than Sweet Fantasy: The Content of Balanchine’s The Nutcracker," Center, March 1954, call number *MGZA). Denby’s assessment is exactly right. The magic lies in the fact that this is the first time in the ballet where a whole group of point shoe-clad creatures dance en masse. The whole stage now teems with the technique that was before just the novelty of the Columbine doll. These basic ballet steps become wonders for the audience to behold.
Balanchine’s choreography for each of the Act II divertissements (all danced by enchanted creatures) is an individually wrapped exploration of one or two basic balletic steps or themes. Denby writes, “Each dance is instantly specific, it keeps its solidity as it rushes through the air, and is instantly gone” ("More Than Sweet Fantasy"). I was thinking through this during my 48-performance run of Balanchine’s Nutcracker (November 2014-January 2015), in which I danced both the corps de ballet and principal roles in the Spanish “Hot Chocolate” dance. I began to identify what I thought the particular root was for a few of the Act II divertissements. For me, Spanish “Hot Chocolate” is about rond de jambe (à terre, en l’air, rond de jambe sauté, grand rond de jambe jeté.) Arabian “Coffee” demonstrates how a woman can move in a pointe shoe on half-pointe. “Marzipan” is a miniature treatise on pointe work. In just over two minutes, Balanchine clearly delineates all the different ways that a woman can move on and off of pointe (relevé, piqué, jumping to pointe, walking on pointe, and hopping on pointe). “Marzipan” also shows off the brilliance of petite allegro dancing. This is impeccably captured in former NYCB principal dancer Margaret Tracey’s performance of the role, part of the 1997 film version of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker (call number *MGZIA 4-2654). The Dewdrop Fairy in “The Waltz of the Flowers,” who is all MGM golden age splendor (like a more purely balletic Cyd Charisse or Esther Williams) is the grand allegro counterpart to the “Marzipan” soloist. Mr. Balanchine’s choreography for the Sugarplum Fairy, being the ruler of the Land of the Sweets, demonstrates classical ballet’s full lexical range. In her variation that opens Act II, her pas de deux with her Cavalier, her coda, finale, and final apotheosis, she is displayed as authoritative and irresistible in moments of delicacy as well as virtuosity. Classical ballet is the language of her magical land. She has the largest vocabulary and is the most articulate communicator.
Image 6. President John F. Kennedy’s family visits backstage after a New York City Ballet performance of The Nutcracker, choreography by George Balanchine. Jacqueline Kennedy with George Balanchine and Suzanne Farrell, Caroline Kennedy in front of Balanch
August Bournonville uses ballet steps in a similarly fantastical manner in his La Sylphide. Only the sylphs, enchanted women, dance en pointe in the truly classical idiom. In this way, they are lifted above Effie and the other heel-shod ladies of the Highlands. The human ones stamp. The enchanted ones bourée. The mortal human women are more or less earthbound. The few “jumps” that they perform in Act I are more like slightly augmented skipping. Thus, the Sylph’s lightness and seeming defiance of gravity is a large part of what makes her so alluring to James. Her expansive allegro movements are the evidence of her carefree spirit. She is one with the air, unfettered. For James, she represents freedom from his family relations and his community’s expectations.
It is also interesting to note that James and his friend Gurn are the only two mortal men who dance fully realized ballet steps in La Sylphide. The other Scotsmen perform a simple reel in hard clog-like shoes. These two wear ballet slippers and dance sophisticated balletic variations, complete with complicated batterie, pirouettes, and soaring grand allegro combinations. James and Gurn are also the only human characters who can see the Sylph. Only the mortal characters with an eye for the transcendent realm that the Sylph represents are allowed to share in her elevated choreographic language.
The Choreographic Classroom
The Dancing School
There is a seamless relationship between the studio and the stage in the work of both Bournonville and Balanchine. The substance of each man’s choreography was the academic ballet vocabulary, the perfection of which is every dancer’s daily focus in the morning technique class. Both men were teachers as well as choreographers. Thus they could oversee the joint cultivation of their dancers as both students and artists.
The Bournonville school is the syllabus of six classes, one for each day of the week, that was compiled in the years shortly after Bournonville’s death by the ballet master Hans Beck, who succeeded Bournonville as director of the Royal Danish Ballet. The combinations (enchaînements) in these classes were extracted from Bournonville’s own teaching and from the content of his ballets in the Royal Danish Ballet repertory. I was able to read detailed notes about all six days’ worth of enchaînements in Knud Arne Jurgensen’s The Making of the Bournonville School 1893-1979: A Survey of the Musical and Choreographic Sources (call number *MGYB [Bournonville] 95-5549). Former Royal Danish Ballet principal dancers Johan Kobborg and Rose Gad can also be seen beautifully demonstrating fifty of these exercises in the 1992 recording Bournonville Ballet Technique (call number *MGZIA 4-1619). Fully organized and definitively established in 1910, this regimen of codified exercises was the only method of ballet training used at the Royal Danish Ballet until 1932, when Harald Lander became the company’s artistic director. Though this unvaried approach may not have been the most practical way to groom dancers, it did preserve Bournonville’s aesthetic through the generation after his death. Though no longer the sole syllabus of the Royal Danish Ballet, the Bournonville School still serves as an important guide in maintaining the choreographic integrity of Bournonville’s ballets as they continue to be performed. All of this has been sustained by the work of a lineage of faithful ballet masters and teachers who have devoted their lives to passing on the Bournonville torch.
Training, specifically Balanchine’s own teaching, played an essential role in the development of his NYCB company. His classes were a kind of laboratory for the dancers’ technical refinement and for Balanchine’s own choreographic experimentation. This was an ongoing investigation of the classical ballet language, which Balanchine could endlessly manipulate and reinvent. The further Balanchine stretched his dancers in class, the richer a palette of colors they became for his creative use in his choreography. Of Balanchine, Violette Verdy said, “He had a stable of steps so very well classified that he never confused or distorted the value of each one. If you are going to dance Mr. B.’s ballets, you had better get used to clarifying the classical technique you have” (Dancing Balanchine, Dance Magazine, July 1983, call number *MGZA). In his presiding over his company’s daily classes, rehearsals, and performances, Balanchine was always there to guide his dancers through that constant process of clarification. Verdy, like many other Balanchine pupils, thought of him as “the ultimate teacher.” She said, “All the influential teachers you ever had find their final realization in Balanchine” (Balanchine’s Men, call number *MGZIDVD 5-5976).
Image 8: George Balanchine teaching class. BALANCHINE is a Trademark of the George Balanchine Trust. Photographer Nancy LaSalle.
Image 9. George Balanchine teaching. BALANCHINE is a Trademark of the George Balanchine Trust. Photographer Nancy Lassalle.
“The [Balanchine] ballets themselves are such incredible teachers,” said Edward Villella (call number *MGZIDVD 5-5976). Through his choreography, Balanchine was teaching his dancers technique and the art of performance. The qualities that he insisted upon in the classroom were made fully manifest in the repertory that he created. These hallmark qualities of Balanchine’s aesthetic include musicality, speed, attack, and what Villella articulates as “the fulfillment of movement” (call number: *MGZIDVD 5-5976). Balanchine’s ballets are invaluable instruction for me, and the many NYCB dancers like me, who will never work directly with him. Through these works, as they are taught to me by those who danced for Balanchine, I become more fully immersed in his aesthetic.
As a member of the NYCB corps de ballet, I work most closely with Rosemary Dunleavy. She is the almost infallible repository of nearly every step of the Balanchine repertory. She once wrote, “I feel I have trained the company. . . and educated them in the ballets. I’m hoping that is how it will continue. After all, a Balanchine ballet is not something you want to keep to yourself” (I Remember Balanchine, call number *MGYB [Balanchine] 91-846). I am very thankful that she has not kept her encyclopedic knowledge of the Balanchine canon to herself. Rosemary is one of the greatest examples of those who have dedicated their lives to Balanchine’s company and school. Many of my former SAB teachers and NYCB ballet masters have served in their respective positions for decades. This demonstrates an extraordinary fidelity to these two institutions. But beneath that is these individual’s abiding devotion to the man George Balanchine. In Edward Villella’s words, “He was the giver for all of us” (call number *MGZIDVD 5-5976). These former students of Balanchine have responded to his generosity by pouring out their lives in passing on what was entrusted to them.
This intergenerational transmission of artistic knowledge is the lifeblood of ballet. In the culture of both the Royal Danish Ballet and NYCB, this is particularly evident. The dancers in both companies have historically been almost exclusively selected from the two companies’ affiliated schools. The company artistic staff and school faculty in both NYC and Copenhagen are composed almost exclusively of former company dancers. Consequently, the Bournonville-trained Danish and Balanchine-trained American dancers benefit from the harmonious connection between their schooling and professional careers, and a unique uniformity of style and energy is attained. Each company is set apart on the international stage thanks to its homegrown legacy repertory, Balanchine’s ballets at Lincoln Center and Bournonville’s in Kongens Nytorv (“The King’s New Square”). For both companies, since both are now without the living presence of their guiding choreographer-teacher, the teaching and performing of that choreographer’s works preserves the company’s unique aesthetic.
Two ballets have played a uniquely important role in that constant education of the Royal Danish Ballet and the New York City Ballet dancers, “The Dancing School” section from Bournonville’s Konservatoriet and Balanchine’s Serenade. In Konservatoriet (“Conservatory”), Bournonville choreographed an homage to the classes in which he himself had been formed as a dancer under the tutelage of the nineteenth-century French master teacher, Auguste Vestris. In Serenade, begun in March of 1934, George Balanchine choreographed his first ballet in his newly adopted American homeland on the rather inexperienced students of his three month-old School of American Ballet.
The curtain rises on the first act of Konservatoriet in a ballet studio, understood to be a replica of Vestris’s Paris classroom. The ballet master, correcting stick in hand, proceeds to lead his students through their paces. In the manner of that time, an onstage violinist provides the musical accompaniment for the lesson. The dancers’ first movements are ballet fundamentals, grand plié and a series of adagio developpés and promenades. The ballet master claps his hands, and the students walk to the barres that line the two sides and back of the stage. The audience is understood to be the ballet studio’s mirror. The dancers continue with their technical demonstration (petit battements and grand battements) at the barre. During these barre exercises, the group’s younger students (another fine example of Bournonville’s choreography for children) take center stage to show what they have learned. Bournonville gives these junior dancers movement combinations of technical simplicity and rhythmic complexity. After their barre steps, the older students have their turn on the dance floor. They present a series of solo variations and small group dances. The piece concludes with a return to its beginning, with all the dancers executing another grand plié and a developpé attitude, a one-legged balance which the dancers hold until the curtain fully falls. Portions of this are beautifully captured in the 1979 Danish documentary film Dancing Bournonville (call number: *MGZHB 20-2020). Nilas Martins, whose Bournonville staging at NYCB in 2015 had set the course for my whole library project, appears as one of the children.
In its unadorned academic rigor, Bournonville’s Konservatoriet choreography provides a balletic exam of sorts for its dancers. Here the studio-to-stage bond is perhaps more evident than any other place in Bournonville’s work. This is underscored by the fact that Hans Beck, in compiling his six-class “Bournonville School,” drew almost all the enchaînements for the Friday class directly from this Konservatoriet choreography. So even if the ballet was not in the active repertory in a given season, its exacting steps were still being used every Friday morning to sharpen the dancers’ technique.
Image 10. Royal Danish Ballet production of Konservatoriet, 1947, choreography by August Bournonville. Photograph by Roger Wood.
Balanchine’s Serenade also acts as a kind of lesson for its dancers. In the words of Lincoln Kirstein, the cultural giant who cofounded both NYCB and SAB with Balanchine, Serenade was “a primer for our pupils” in “the traditional academic language, which Balanchine employed here in a rare transliteration without inversion, deformation or parody” (Thirty Years: Lincoln Kirstein’s The New York City Ballet, call number *MGTB [U.S.] 80-3585). Balanchine’s primary motivations for the piece were to make a showcase of his new American students’ technique and to teach them how to appear on the stage. He would later write, “It seemed to me that the best way to make students aware of stage technique was to give them something new to dance, something they had never seen before” (call number *MGYB 75-1415). In that process, he made a masterpiece.
Konservatoriet was not one of the Bournonville ballets being prepared for the NYCB 2015 spring season. I came across it quite by chance in my research at the library, while studying the collection’s materials on Stanley Williams. As both a former Royal Danish Ballet dancer and as the preeminent teacher at SAB for over thirty years Williams was a fascinating connector in my investigation of Bournonville and Balanchine. His teaching was by no means a rote transmission of the "Bournonville School” to American students. But his Danish artistic heritage did flavor his pedagogical contribution at SAB. Most notable in this were his stagings of Bournonville’s ballets for the annual SAB Workshop Performances, beginning in 1968 with the pas de deux from The Flower Festival in Genzano (danced by the very young Gelsey Kirkland and Robert Weiss.) In my library explorations, I had the pleasure of watching many of these performances. Highlights included: the 1979 film of my teacher Darci Kistler in the pas de deux from William Tell (call number *MGZHB 4-1826), the 1980 video of my teacher Jock Soto in the “Jockey Dance” from From Siberia to Moscow (call number *MGZIA 4-4935), and the 1982 recording of Peter Boal (with whom I trained for two summers at the Seattle-based Pacific Northwest Ballet) in the “Chinese Dance” from Far From Denmark (call number *MGZIA 4-4977). In all of these, “Williams proved that Bournonville’s ingenious arrangement of steps could survive even a radical translation of time and environment” and “demonstrated, inadvertently perhaps, the kinship between Bournonville’s obsessive fascination with steps and their patterning, and his trust that such material alone might make dancing worth watching—and Balanchine’s” (The Quality of the Moment: Stanley Williams, Dance Magazine, March 1981, call number *MGZA). Balanchine, a self-professed Bournonville fan, was so delighted by these stagings that he had Stanley set several of these pieces on the professional NYCB dancers, under the title Bournonville Divertissements, was be reprised in the NYCB’s 2015 spring season.
Image 11. Stanley Williams teaching at the School of American Ballet. Photographer unknown.
In an interview I watched, Stanley Williams had commented on the choreographic nature of Bournonville’s classes and how Konservatoriet essentially was the Friday class in the “Bournonville School” (call number *MGZIC 9-4800). The library has a wonderful, flickering silent 1955 film of Stanley dancing one of the Konservatoriet male variations at Jacob’s Pillow, when he was there with the first group of Royal Danish Ballet dancers to visit America (call number *MGZHB 4-172). So, of all the SAB Workshop films that I watched at the library, the 1986 performance of Konservatoriet, featuring the teenaged student Margaret Tracey (whose “Marzipan” in The Nutcracker had dazzled me earlier in my research), was the most intriguing to me (call number *MGZIA 4-523). Nilas Martins, a teenaged SAB student at that point, appears in the corps de ballet. Also featured in this recording is Kathleen Tracey, Margaret’s younger sister, who went on to become a NYCB soloist and is now one of NYCB’s finest ballet masters. In studying this Konservatoriet film, I first began to connect the dots between it and Serenade.
The curtain rises on a tableau of tulle-clad dancers in both ballets (excluding the men onstage at the start of Konservatoriet.) Both ballets begin with basic academic ballet movements, especially Serenade. Balanchine has his dancers execute a simple port de bras, turn their feet out from “6th” position to first position, and then tendu à la seconde to fifth position. This fifth position is the alpha and the omega of classical ballet. For Bournonville and Balanchine, both supreme classicists, its perfection is essential. Of fifth position, Balanchine said, “This is where it all is” (Suki Schorer on Balanchine Technique, call number *MGTM 00-26). It is often the final pose in a Bournonville variation. This requires incredible technical strength from the dancer, since fifth position unforgivingly reveals the slightest wobble or adjustment. No extra flourish from the dancer can mask a faulty fifth.
In the second movement of Serenade, Balanchine clears the center of the stage for the so-called “Waltz Girl” to dance by having the ladies of the corps de ballet create three lines, one to border the back and the two sides of the stage. Here the ladies proceed to link arms and plunge into a combination of movements with arabesque penchée and backbends in tendu devant. In this formation, they resemble Bournonville’s Konservatoriet corps de ballet who take their places at the barres that line the sides and back of the stage. (Mr. Balanchine also uses this construct in the fourth movement of his ballet Symphony in C, when the ladies of the corps de ballet line the perimeter of the stage to show off their fine schooling with a string of sparkling battements tendus.)
In one of the most recognizable poses from Konservatoriet’s central pas de trois, the man is seen supporting two ladies at once, one in attitude croisé devant, the other in attitude effacé derrière. Throughout the fourth and final “Elegy” movement of Serenade, the male dancer has several similar passages in which he partners two, and at several points three, ladies at once. One of the most striking examples of this is when he whirls one woman in to embrace him with one arm while he simultaneously whirls another woman away from him with his other arm, then repeats the motion back and forth. This moving in two directions at once is also seen earlier in Serenade when the “Waltz-Girl” whips off a sequence of en dedans (inward) piqué turns that trace an en dehors (outward) pattern on the floor. (Bournonville also uses this effect, but reversed, in the Act III “Tarantella” in Napoli, when the couple who play castanets perform en dehors saut de basque jumps in an en dedans floor pattern.)
As I studied Serenade at the library and observed its performances at NYCB in the 2014 fall and 2015 winter seasons, I began to see its importance in the life of SAB and NYCB more and more. I knew it was Balanchine’s first new ballet in America. I discovered that it was one of the ballets presented on the night of NYCB’s inaugural performance in the New York State Theater (now David H. Koch Theater) on April 20, 1964, which was the 30th anniversary year of the ballet’s creation. A film of this performance is in the library’s collection (call number *MGZIC 9-5021). Former NYCB principal dancer and esteemed SAB faculty member Suki Schorer began staging Balanchine ballets for the SAB Workshops in 1973. She has staged Serenade more frequently than any other single work, at intervals of about five years since 1974. She can be seen dancing in a 1969 stage rehearsal film of the ballet in the library’s collection (call number *MGZHB 12-639). Films of the 1984, 1989, and 1994 SAB Workshop presentations are available for viewing in the library’s collection (call numbers *MGZIA 4-270, *MGZIA 4-867, *MGZIA 4-2344, respectively). Thus Serenade has served, more than any other ballet, as an initiation in dancing the Balanchine repertory for scores of SAB students and proven to be a valuable bridge for those students into their professional ballet work with NYCB (and companies the world over). I was able to observe both rehearsals and the performances of Suki’s 2009 and 2014 SAB Workshop stagings of Serenade, and she worked with me directly on Balanchine’s Cortège Hongrois for my graduation Workshop. In all these experiences, her reverence for Mr. B.’s aesthetic and her passion for sharing the details of his choreography were so marvelously evident. Suki’s Workshop rehearsals were as much lessons in technique and artistry as her daily SAB classes. In this clear studio to stage bond, she follows in the steps of her teacher.
Image 12. Suki Schorer teaching at the School of American Ballet. Photograper unknown.
“There’s a wonderful reciprocity, a beautiful understanding, that proceeds through all of this. You don’t grab. You converse” (call number *MGZIDVD 5-5976). So Edward Villella described the nature of the relationship between the man and the woman in a Balanchine pas de deux. For Balanchine, ballet was most importantly about the woman. The man supports and serves his ballerina with deference. In so doing, he finds his own place of honor. Like a rose’s stem, he is the setting for her jewel-like beauty. She responds by following his lead and trusting that he will be attentive to her needs (the particulars of her center of gravity, weight distribution, musical phrasing, etc.). In studying the passages for the principal man and woman in Balanchine’s Chaconne, in which I danced the corps de ballet in the 2014 fall and 2015 winter seasons at NYCB, I saw how Balanchine used this idea of conversing through gestures both in the principals' two pas de deux sections and in their serial variations. In these variations in particular, I saw a definite relationship with Bournonville’s male-female duet choreography.
In Bournonville’s ballets, there is not a great deal of what modern viewers would consider “partnering.” There are hardly any of the lifts, supported adagio movements, and supported pirouettes, which Balanchine ingeniously employed in his choreography. Rather, one observes two individuals who are dancing together in a Bournonville pas de deux. Virtuosity is required from both sexes in his ballets. In an age when the ballerina was glorified to such a degree that the male dancer was almost entirely overlooked elsewhere in Europe, Bournonville made it part of his mission in Copenhagen to make roles of real choreographic substance for men. He created many such roles for himself to dance. Thus he ensured that the male and female ballet dancer would be challenged and flourish in a comparable manner. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Bournonville’s pas de deux from The Flower Festival in Genzano (copies of Bournonville’s handwritten notes for this ballet are in the library’s collection, call number (S) *MGZMD 30). Here, as in the Chaconne variations, one senses that the man and the woman are dancing with and for each other. In both Flower Festival and Chaconne, the dancers’ technically complex variations unfold in rapid succession. The woman finishes her moment, then gestures to her man, who then picks up where she left off to begin his moment. In this relaying of dances, both the Chaconne and Flower Festival partnerships are like married couples who know each other so well that they finish each other’s sentences. When the man delivers his choreographic lines, the woman remains onstage (standing off to the side) to listen to him. When her lines come, he returns the favor. In Villella’s words, these exchanges are “a physical conversation” (call number *MGZIDVD 5-5976). This is rendered with tenderness and flair in the 2005 Danish television broadcast of Flower Festival with Gudrun Bojesen and Mads Blangstrup from the Royal Danish Ballet’s Third Bournonville Festival (call number *MGZIDVD 5-2783).
Image 13. Peter Martins and Suzanne Farrell in the New York City Ballet production of "Flower Festival in Genzano," choreography by August Bournonville. Photograph by Martha Swope.
This Flower Festival and Chaconne connection is made all the more interesting by the fact that Balanchine created the latter on Suzanne Farrell and his very own Dane par excellence, Peter Martins. Balanchine skillfully exploited Martins’s Bournonville training in his variations, displaying the batterie, veiled preparations, and fleetness of movement that are so characteristic of the Danish schooling. Balanchine’s Martins moments provide a brilliant complement to the coloratura steps that he devised for Farrell. The Library possesses an excellent film record of this: Farrell and Martins in Chaconne (call numbers *MGZIDVD 5-4604 and DVD B Balanchine C) and Martins in Flower Festival with Merrill Ashley (call number *MGZIC 9-448).
Image 14. Peter Martins and Suzanne Farrell in the New York City Ballet production of "Chaconne," choreography by George Balanchine ©The George Balanchine Trust Photograph by Martha Swope
The conversation dances in Flower Festival and Chaconne shed light on Balanchine and Bournonville’s similar perspectives on the relationship between a man and a woman, characterized by harmonious collaboration. In Balanchine’s Square Dance and in the “Ballabile” from Act I of Bournonville’s Napoli, that sense of togetherness then ripples out into a whole community of dancers. The two pieces are cast for the same forces, six corps de ballet couples and one principal couple. In Napoli, they are the youth of the city, and the principal couple are the young lovers Teresina and Gennaro. In Square Dance, they are anonymous dancers at a gathering. The mood is generally joyful in both, hence the constant allegro movements. “The essence of ballet is order,” wrote Kirstein (Tributes: Celebrating Fifty Years of New York City Ballet, call number *MGTB [U.S.] 98-6650). Kirstein continues, “What one sees in Balanchine’s ballets are structures of naked order, executed by celebrants who have no other aim than to show an aspect of order in their own persons, testifying to an impersonal purity and personal interest.” (call number *MGTB [U.S.] 98-6650). This is certainly true of Square Dance. Even though the “Ballabile” participants have the added element of conveying a particular character, they still exhibit that same purity and openness.
Image 15. Stanley Williams (far right in the front line) in the Royal Danish Ballet production of the Act I Ballabile from "Napoli," choreography by August Bournonville. Photograph by Arnold Eagle.
The discussion through movement is a large part of both Square Dance and the “Ballabile.” But it is now on a much larger scale than in Flower Festival and the Chaconne principal variations. In the “Ballabile,” the men begin the dance. The ladies then join them. After a bit, with all the ensemble together, all but two men clear to the periphery of the stage. The others stand by and enjoy watching the two men as they show off their elevation. The two men finish by extending a hand to acknowledge the group of ladies, who then link at the waist (in a formation much like the Lilac Fairy attendants in Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty) and dance a fancy footwork phrase with crisp pas de courru and lightning fast changements. The ladies finish by clearing a path so that the whole pack of men can come flying forward along the diagonal from upstage left in that quintessentially Bournonville jump, grand jeté en attittude. The whole corps then dance a few more steps together and then draw back to the sides so that the principals can make their first entrance. These constant group shiftings continue for the duration of the “Ballabile.” With each reconfiguration, those who have just finished dancing gesture to those who follow them, as if to say, “Now it’s your turn.” This “Ballabile” is vividly captured in the film of the February 16, 1983 NYCB performance of Bournonville Divertissements, lead by Nicol Hlinka and Jean-Pierre Frohlich, now a NYCB ballet master (call number *MGZIDVD 5-4533).
One observes this same gracious passing of the choreographic baton throughout Square Dance, especially during the separate men’s and women’s dances. The men’s dance begins with the principal man taking fifth position center stage, flanked by the other gentlemen. A game of balletic follow-the-leader ensues, with the corps men echoing the principal’s steps. My favorite portion of this dance is when the lead man executes a sequence with soaring jetés battus and jazzy hip thrusts in five counts over the music’s four-count structure, creating one layer of counterpoint. The six corps men execute the same phrase with the principal man at first. Then the principal man stops moving for two counts while the corps men continue on. He then restarts the phrase, now overlapping with the others. Hence a second layer of counterpoint is created. In this moment, which typifies the musical and choreographic wit of the entire ballet, the dancers’ delight in dancing together and in the steps themselves is palpable.
The “Ballabile” from Napoli is the first excerpt in Bournonville Divertissements, as it is performed at NYCB. When Bournonville Divertissements was filmed under the title Bournonville Dances for PBS in 1982, this was also the case (call number *MGZIC 9-448). As the opening credits finish just before the “Ballabile” begins, Peter Martins is heard recounting the reason Balanchine gave him for why Bournonville was so great. Balanchine had said to Peter, “Because he entertains with steps” (call number *MGZHB 12-639). I can only imagine that Bournonville would have made a similar comment on Balanchine’s choreography, since Balanchine also had a remarkable facility for entertaining his public through his dexterous manipulation of ballet vocabulary.
Image 16. Nicholas Magallanes, Patricia Wilde, and ensemble in New York City Ballet production of "Square Dance," choreography by George Balanchine. ©The George Balanchine Trust. Photograph by Martha Swope.
In Square Dance, Balanchine has some of his most amusing choreographic master strokes. The very premise of the work, a formally classical ballet to baroque music in the guise of an all-American square dance, is already a kind of very sophisticated joke. In the original 1957 production, the string orchestra sat onstage as a band of Corelli- and Vivaldi-playing fiddlers. A real-life square dance caller, Elisha Keeler, provided rhyming commentary that he had especially written to accompany Balanchine’s choreography. Caller Keeler even wove the names of the ballet’s leads, Patricia Wilde and Nicholas Magallanes, into his text. In the female follow-the-leader dance, he instructed the ladies of the corps de ballet: “Now keep your eyes on Pat. Now see where she is at. Her feet go wickety-wack.” By this he meant Wilde’s impeccably executed gargouillade. Balanchine later cut the caller role and relegated the string section into the pit in his 1976 revision of the ballet. For this version, the leads were Kay Mazzo (now SAB’s detail-oriented and incredibly nurturing co-chair of faculty) and Bart Cook, for whom Balanchine added a pensive adagio variation. This is the reading of the ballet currently performed, which I had the pleasure of watching several times over the course of NYCB’s 2014 fall and 2015 winter seasons. Even without the caller’s colorful commentary, the ballet is still brimming with choreographic amusements.
One such moment is during the second and livelier half of the principal’s pas de deux. The man swipes his leg in a quick rond de jambe à terre, as if to trip his partner, as she bounds over his leg into a series of temps de flèche jumps. It is all in a spirit of fun. Another moment is when, amid the classical precision of the female follow-the-leader dance, the principal woman abruptly jumps onto pointe into an entirely knockkneed position. In Balanchine’s body of work, such a distorted position is not at all unusual. In fact, he even used this same pose in Stravinsky Violin Concerto in the “Aria II” pas de deux, which he choreographed for Mazzo and Peter Martins. But in its Square Dance ladies’ dance context, which is a miniature treatise on classroom petite allegro, this pose is delightfully shocking. Here we see Balanchine entertaining with steps.
Image 17. Kay Mazzo, Bart Cook, and ensemble in the New York City Ballet production of "Square Dance," choreography by George Balanchine. ©The George Balanchine Trust. Photograph by Martha Swope.
Through studying Square Dance and the “Ballabile” side by side, I also found several places where Bournonville and Balanchine chose the same or similar steps with which to entertain their respective audiences. For example, the six “Ballabile” corps couples execute a big repetitive combination of two quick runs into a grand jeté moving in a circular pattern just before the principal couple’s second entrance. The six Square Dance corps couples perform exactly the same combination (but moving along a slightly different floor plan) just before the principal woman’s virtuosic circular reentrance combination of coupé jeté en tournant and saut de basque near the end of the female follow-the-leader dance. Keeler’s original call for this buoyant sequence of leaps could very well have been written for the “Ballabile” moment as well: “Chase that rabbit. Chase that squirrel. Chase that pretty girl 'round the world.” Near the end of the “Ballabile” and the end of Square Dance, the men of the ballet have to perform consecutive entrechat six jumps. This simple step is a challenge at this point in both ballets because of how tired the men are from all the difficult jumping that has preceded this sequence. Tendu bookends these two ballets. The first step seen in Square Dance is tendu écarté devant, and one of the last steps seen in the “Ballabile” is tendu effacé devant. To top it all off, the pose that the Square Dance corps dancers take at the end of that ballet’s first movement (the man kneeling with the woman sitting on his knee, both sexes with the outside arm in fifth position) is a close relative to the “Ballabile” final pose (man kneeling with his arm around his woman, who is standing in tendu effacé devant).
Three particularly excellent Square Dance performance films at the Library are those of Patricia Wilde with Nicholas Magallanes, with Keeler’s calling (call number:*MGZHB 6-17), Merrill Ashley with Sean Lavery (call number MGZIDVD 5-4053), and Margaret Tracey with Peter Boal (call number *MGZIC 9-4309B). Patricia Wilde, can also be seen coaching the ballet with members of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, where Wilde served as artistic director from 1982-1997 (call number *MGZIA 4-3018). Mazzo and Cook can also be seen in the film of a 1977 onstage rehearsal of the ballet (call number *MGZHB 12-1572). The “Ballabile” is very well danced in the 1986 film of the Royal Danish Ballet ballet in Napoli (call number *MGZIA 4-1063).
In my library explorations on Bournonville and Balanchine, I discovered and became fascinated by the connection between two of these men’s muses, Lucile Grahn and Tanaquil Le Clercq. Both Grahn and Le Clercq were technical and artistic prodigies. Each inspired some of these two masters’ most important choreography. Both ballerinas became legends in their own right, whose artistic contributions are now emblems of the entire era in which they danced.
Lucile Grahn was a pupil of Bournonville’s beginning when she was ten years old. Commenting on the seven years that he spent as her teacher, Bournonville wrote that she “possessed all the qualities which are characteristic of a female dancer of the very first class” and that she “fulfilled all the expectations to which her natural gifts entitled her” (My Theater Life, call number *MGYB [Bournonville] 79-4109). Bournonville made a pas de deux for himself and Grahn called La Vestale when she was only fourteen years old. This is a piece of harrowing technical difficulty. The choreography requires the female dancer to echo her partner’s virtuoso movements. It must have been extraordinarily impressive to see the teenage Grahn execute the same batterie and grand pirouettes as her teacher. There are three exceptional video records of this work in the library’s collection: a 1967 film of former Royal Danish Ballet stars Toni Lander and Flemming Flindt (call number *MGZIC 9-550) and two films of Stanley Williams’ 1977 staging of the ballet for that year’s SAB Workshop Performances (Melinda Roy and Douglas Hay, call number *MGZIC 9-1828; Victoria Hall and Patrick Bissell, call number *MGZIC 9-1833). In 1835, Bournonville created his first major role for Grahn in his full-length ballet Valdemar. Grahn was sixteen years old, and she carried the weight of the ballet. Bournonville wrote that Grahn’s character, Astrid, was the “focal point about which grace, festivity, and chivalrous gallantry could revolve” (call number *MGYB [Bournonville] 79-4109). Valdemar was based on old Danish sagas of kings and conquests. In using themes of such national historical importance for the first time, Bournonville was attempting to create a work that would place the art of ballet on an equal footing with the already established and revered Danish theater and opera. He was able to achieve just that. He would later write of Valdemar, “No drama has enjoyed greater favor or drawn larger audiences than this ballet” (call number *MGYB [Bournonville] 79-4109). It also secured a place of popular, as well as critical, esteem for the ballet as a dramatic art form. Grahn’s contribution was invaluable in this. Of her Astrid, Bournonville wrote, “It was she who gave our audiences the first concept of female virtuosity” (call number *MGYB [Bournonville] 79-4109). She was both technician and artist. Grahn would become part of the very small group of ballerinas (which included Marie Taglioni, Carlotta Grisi, Fanny Cerrito, and Fanny Elssler) whose dancing would define the whole Romantic era in the history of ballet.
Tanaquil Le Clercq (known to many as “Tanny”) entered Balanchine’s artistic world at the age of eleven, when she was one of the five winners of SAB’s first-ever scholarship competition. She caught Balanchine’s eye from the very beginning. He commented that this little girl looked “like a real ballerina already, only very small, as if you were looking at her through the wrong end of a telescope” (But First a School: The First Fifty Years of the School of American Ballet, call number *MGZ 86-143). In 1946, Balanchine choreographed a principal role for Le Clercq in his ballet The Four Temperaments, which was presented on the opening program of Balanchine’s company, Ballet Society (the direct precursor to NYCB). Le Clercq was only seventeen years old and was still an advanced SAB student when Balanchine made the ballet’s fourth variation, “Choleric,” for her. There is a brief rehearsal clip of Le Clercq in this variation in the 1989 documentary film Dancing for Mr. B: Six Balanchine Ballerinas (call number *MGZIC 9-2127). Balanchine was greatly inspired by her technical clarity, artistic maturity, and by her unique physique. Her body was elongated, with interminably long limbs, a short torso, and long beautifully arched feet. She was the prototype for what is often referred to as the ideal “Balanchine dancer.” Lincoln Kirstein wrote that she was “a brilliant, capable, and strangely personal ballerina of wit” and that she “was the epitome of Balanchine’s lyrically athletic American criterion” (call number *MGTB [U. S.] 80-3585).
Death and the Maiden
As I investigated more about Grahn and Le Clercq at the library, I was struck by the many relationships between the two masterpieces that were made for them: Bournonville’s 1836 restaging of La Sylphide for Grahn (after the 1832 Paris original that Filippo Taglioni had made for his daughter Marie) and Balanchine’s 1951 La Valse for Le Clercq. Both are indeed romantic ballets, with their evocative music, flowing costumes, and general air of mystery and otherworldliness. Grahn’s Sylph role is a symbol of purity and transcendent beauty. The color of her white diaphanous costume and her elevated classical ballet technique place her in high contrast to the ladies of the Scottish Highlands in the story. As the protagonist in La Valse, Le Clercq’s role is the Sylph’s mortal counterpart. Her white dress cuts through the darkness of the stage setting and distinguishes her amid the deep red, orange, and burgundy hues of Karinska’s Dior-like costumes for the other ladies in the ballet. Le Clercq can be seen dancing this role in a Library film of the ballet made in the same year as the ballet's premiere (call number *MGZIDF 1691).
La Valse begins with a pas de trois for three women, who have often been referred to as “Fates.” They set the decadent and slightly sinister tone of the entire ballet with their languorously paced and highly ornamental gestures. (Three sylphs similarly set the stage for the dancing in Act II of La Sylphide.) Richard Buckle described the three La Valse ladies by writing, “They are society’s witches, who console themselves for the loss of youth by the exercise of power” (George Balanchine: Ballet Master, call number *MGYB [Balanchine] 88-2443). Buckle’s comment could very well describe Madge, the old village sorceress in La Sylphide who wields her occult powers to deceive James. She gives him a magical scarf and tells him that if he but embrace the Sylph with it, her wings will fall off and James will be able to have her as his earthly love. She will not be able to fly away from him anymore. The reality is that when James finally does grasp the Sylph with the scarf, the outcome is not the mere loss of her wings, but the loss of her life.
Image 19. Tanaquil Le Clercq and Nicholas Magallanes in the New York City Ballet production of "La Valse," choreography by George Balanchine. ©The George Balanchine Trust. Photographer unknown.
Death comes to the maiden in La Sylphide through the garment. I saw this as a staggering connection with La Valse, where the costuming also plays a decisive role in the final demise of the woman in white. In the final section of the ballet, the Le Clercq character encounters the figure of Death (originally danced by Francisco Moncion). He seduces her with gifts of black gloves, black jewels, a transparent black dress which she puts on over her white dress, and a bouquet of black flowers. She is enveloped. Death himself then whirls her into an ecstatic waltz and ultimately drops her lifeless body to the floor. As a dancer in the corps of La Valse, I stand off to the side of the stage with my back to the audience during the protagonist’s final dance with Death. I angle myself slightly into the stage so I can watch this moment unfold out of the corner of my eye. It is chilling and thrilling.
Image 20. Nicholas Magallanes and Tanaquil Le Clercq in the New York City Ballet production of "La Valse," choreography by George Balanchine. ©The George Balanchine Trust. Photographer unknown.
The corps de ballet, who have been “asleep” off to the sides of the stage during the Le Clercq character’s final pas de deux, then “wake up” and find the dead woman lying center stage. The corps then back away in horror and dance one last frenzied passage. As the curtain falls on the ballet, the Le Clercq character’s dead body is being held aloft, legs and feet in fifth position, and swung from side to side by three men as the rest of the cast runs in panicked circles around her. Just before she dies at the end of Act II of La Sylphide, the Sylph makes a position with her trembling arms. She places her right hand on her left shoulder as her left arm shakily extends away from her body. If she kept her arms in the same relationship to each other, and simply lifted her left arm straight up to the sky, she would almost exactly mimic the iconic pose that the “Fates” in La Valse strike near the beginning of the ballet’s final section. Arlene Croce wrote of this image, “They look like crosses in a graveyard” (Repertory in Review: 40 Years of the New York City Ballet, call number *MGTB [U. S.] 77-5550). Like the Le Clercq character, the dead Sylph is ultimately lifted aloft, with her legs and feet in fifth position, by several of her fellow sylphs. As she is carried off, the kneeling James weeps with his head buried in his hands. Lis Jeppesen’s death and Nikolaj Hübbe’s subsequent mourning are devastating in the library’s 1988 film of the Royal Danish Ballet in La Sylphide (call number *MGZIDVD 5-4282).
Bournonville choreographed his La Sylphide for himself as James and Grahn as the Sylph. Balanchine did not choreograph La Valse for himself and Le Clercq (Nicholas Magallanes was her partner). But he had choreographed a piece in 1944 for a March of Dimes benefit performance for himself and Le Clercq, then a fifteen-year-old SAB student. In it she played a little girl who was stricken with polio, confined to a wheelchair, miraculously healed, and ultimately able to perform a dance of celebration. Balanchine danced the role of Polio. In an eerie sequence of events, in which life imitated art, Le Clercq was stricken with polio at the age of twenty-seven while NYCB was on tour in, of all places on earth, August Bournonville’s birthplace of Copenhagen, Denmark.
The Chain of Beauty
The first ballet that I studied when I embarked on my library research for thr 2014-2015 NYCB season was Balanchine’s last masterpiece, Mozartiana, which he choreographed for NYCB’s 1981 Tchaikovsky Festival. This was even before I had decided to focus on the relationship between Bournonville and Balanchine. I was simply curious about Mozartiana, since it was being presented as the centerpiece of an all-Tchaikovsky program of Balanchine ballets, in which I was dancing in the corps of the “Theme and Variations” section of Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3. My investigation of the ballet consisted of watching the library rehearsal and performance films of the ballet, reading Robert Maiorano’s book Balanchine’s Mozartiana: The Making of a Masterpiece (which documents the entire creation of the work, call number *MGYB [Balanchine] 85-940), and watching every performance of Mozartiana from the wings as I warmed up for “Theme and Variations.” As I reflected more on what I had learned about Mozartiana later in the 2015 winter season, by which time Bournonville had become the other thread in my library inquiry, I began to see how in this one ballet there were powerful examples of all the major themes that I had found that related Bournonville and Balanchine.
The little children, four girls from SAB, played a major role Mozartiana. This was Balanchine’s last choreography for children, and it was unlike anything he had done before. Of these four young ladies’ contribution on the ballet’s opening night, Maiorano wrote, “No longer children, they prance step for step alongside the ballerina [Suzanne Farrell] who possessed the greatest understanding of Balanchine’s genius.” Maiorano continues by writing that the four SAB girls “have made history. For the first time in a ballet of the New York City Ballet, young students are not in children’s roles but are integral to a ballet’s design” (call number *MGYB [Balanchine] 85-940). Robert Maiorano has a unique perspective to comment on this as he does. He was a former SAB child student and NYCB dancer. In fact, Maiorano played the Prince in the 1958 CBS broadcast of Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, in which Balanchine played Drosselmeier (call number*MGZIDVD 5-4143, Discs 1 & 2).
Image 21. Ib Andersen, Suzanne Farrell, Jock Soto, and ensemble in the New York City Ballet production of "Mozartiana," choreography by George Balanchine. ©The George Balanchine Trust. Photograph by Paul Kolnik.
The 1981 spring season, in which Balanchine choreographed Mozartiana, marked the last time in his life when Balanchine regularly taught the NYCB company class. So this was the last time where his technical and highly musicality-oriented teaching directly fed his creative work. Maiorano commented on Balanchine’s choreographic classicism in the midst of all this: “By adding, developing, syncopating, and subtracting, Balanchine innovates within the classical tradition. Through striving for new movement, his respect for the mathematics and historical essence of the music is the foundation of his choreographic technique” (call number: *MGYB [Balanchine] 85-940). This was the final chapter of Balanchine’s lifelong binding together of the studio and the stage.
Balanchine eloquently displayed the joys of dancing together in Mozartiana as well. There is an amazing choreographic relay between the ballet’s principal man and woman in the long theme and variations section. These variations are slightly different in structure from the Chaconne conversation dances in that in Mozartiana Balanchine has the dancers fully exit the stage after passing the baton to their partner. The woman was Suzanne Farrell. The man was Ib Andersen, a former Royal Danish Ballet star whom Balanchine had invited to join NYCB as a principal dancer in 1980. Bournonville was present in his variations by virtue of his Danish balletic formation, and Bournonville was present in one of Farrell’s variations through a particular step. Maiorano wrote, “Farrell immediately jumps, ‘reaching’ her legs with straight knees ahead of her before landing and jumping into another leap holding a second with both legs curved behind her in the quintessential flight of La Sylphide” (call number *MGYB [Balanchine] 85-940).
Image 22. Ib Andersen and Suzanne Farrell in the New York City Ballet production of Mozartiana, choreography by George Balanchine. ©The George Balanchine Trust. Photograph by Martha Swope.
Mozartiana was also Balanchine’s last masterwork for Suzanne Farrell, his ultimate muse. In all, he made twenty-three ballets for her. She was his enduring inspiration. Maiorano wrote, “Their collaboration, their communion, has been a glory of the New York City Ballet for twenty years” (call number *MGYB [Balanchine] 85-940). It was a pleasure for me to observe how Farrell would reinvent her approach to her Mozartiana role in each of the films that I watched (including call numbers *MGZIDVD 5-4582 and *MGZIA 4-8188). The choreography remained the same. But the way she would stress or mute certain movements and musical accents made the ballet feel remarkably fresh each time. In Mozartiana, Balanchine was “like a master tailor” for Farrell (call number *MGZIDVD 5-5976). Every gesture fit her to perfection. Arlene Croce wrote of Farrell’s centrality in the work: “Thus does the master choreographer aggrandize the gifts and presence of a ballerina. Thus does he reveal her, sovereign in her kingdom of ballet- the one among the many who are one” (Dancing: Bounty, The New Yorker, August 10, 1981, in “Tchaikovsky Festival” clippings, call number *MGZR).
The more I studied, I began to see Mozartiana as the summation of Balanchine’s whole life’s work. He and Lincoln Kirstein’s dream of an American company and school of complementary excellence that could stand its own with the great ballet companies and schools of the past was realized in this ballet with the work of the four SAB girls and the adult dancers (like Farrell) whom he had groomed. Here also was the meeting of the artists with whom Balanchine shared a mystical bond. Balanchine had always felt that Tchaikovsky had guided him whenever he had choreographed to his music. He once said, “When I was doing Serenade, Tchaikovsky encouraged me. Almost the whole Serenade is done with his help” (Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky, call number *MGYB [Balanchine] 93-930). In Mozartiana, as its title makes clear, Tchaikovsky is paying homage to Mozart. Tchaikovsky even referred to Mozart as “the musical Christ” (Dancing: Bounty. . . , call number *MGZR). Thus there were deep ties between these men across centuries and artistic genres.
This is what I saw to be the most important connection of all between Balanchine and Bournonville. They were both intensely spiritual men who saw their teaching and choreography as being related to a much larger story of elevating mankind through the transcendent and transforming power of art. In Bournonville’s words, “Every dancer ought to regard his laborious art as a link in the chain of beauty. . . and as an important element in the spiritual development of the nations” (My Theater Life, call number *MGYB [Bournonville] 79-4109). Both Bournonville and Balanchine had immense knowledge of the history of their art form and their far-reaching vision for where that form could go. Consequently, Peter Martins’s description of Balanchine could be true of Bournonville as well: “His belief and trust in music and classical ballet were absolute and his deep motive was to assure that the classical ballet idiom would continue for generations. He had a love for both, and as ballet master he knew he was creating the link that bound its past to its future” (Portrait of Mr. B, call number *MGYB [Balanchine] 84-3837).
I complete my thoughts on Bournonville and Balanchine with a quote from Bournonville’s Letters on Dance and Choreography, which were originally published in the Parisian weekly paper L’Europe Artiste in 1860. In these eight letters, Bournonville shares his memories of influential figures from his past, his thoughts on the current state of ballet, and what he would do to take the art form forward. At the conclusion of the first letter, Bournonville pays tribute to August Vestris, the master teacher who had mentored him and served as the model for his life as a dancer, teacher, choreographer, and ballet master. He wrote of Vestris:
“Lively, light-hearted, sensitive, and generous, he loved not only the dance and the theatre, but everything that was beautiful, spiritual, and courteous. His fire warmed without burning anyone who approached him, for he was impetuous without rage, critical without malice, superior without arrogance. Gifted with a lively imagination and exquisite taste, he knew better than anyone how to reveal his pupils’ qualities and to conceal their faults; and those who, by chance, understood how to grasp his advice, were often able to profit from it for the rest of their careers” (call number *MGRZ-Res. 01-8303).
When I read this excerpt to Susan Pilarre (former NYCB soloist, longtime distinguished SAB faculty member, and mentor to me), she simply responded by saying, “That could have been written about Balanchine.”
It is my hope that the rest of my life will be spent as a student and as a servant of the art of ballet, particularly as it is taught and performed at SAB and the New York City Ballet. I trust that the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts Jerome Robbins Dance Division’s collection will continue to play a critical role in that ongoing work of scholarship and service.
Items in the Jerome Robbins Dance Division
- New York Public Library Digital Collections.
- New York Public Library Digital Collections.
- A. Bournonville, call number:*MGZFB Bou A P (2) New York Public Library Digital Collections Image ID: 5073727.
- New York Public Library Digital Collections.
- In Jerome Robbins Dance Division, call number *MGZEB 95-5482, Ser. B, vol. 70, p. 21\*WDY 98-1, no. 262.
- George Balanchine, Photographs: teaching class, no. 505, call number *MGZEA.
- George Balanchine, Photographs: teaching class, no. 505, call number *MGZEA.
- In Jerome Robbins Dance Division, call number *MGZEB 95-5482, Ser. B, vol. 79, p. 4\*WDY 98-1, no. 254.
- School of American Ballet, New York, Oversize Photographs, Folder 3, Photo 26, Image 4-4a, call number *MGZEAO.
- School of American Ballet, inc, New York, Oversize Photographs, Folder 2, Photo 15, Library call number: *MGZEAO.
- Suzanne Farrell, Photographs: with Peter Martins, no. 134, call number *MGZEA.
- Suzanne Farrell, Photographs: with Peter Martins, no. 131, call number *MGZEA.
- Napoli (Lander H after Bournonville), Photographs, no. 24, call number *MGZEA.
- Square dance (Balanchine), Oversize Photographs, no. 4, call number *MGZEAO.
- Square Dance (Balanchine) NYCB Production, no. 20, call number *MGZEA.
- Lucile Grahn i Sylphiden, call number *MGZFB Gra L Syl 1.
- La Valse (Balanchine), Photographs, no. 2, call number *MGZEA.
- In Jerome Robbins Dance Division Title: La Valse (Balanchine), Photographs, no. 1, call number *MGZEA.
- Mozartiana (Balanchine), Oversize Photographs, no. 2, call number *MGZEAO.
- Mozartiana (Balanchine), 1981 Production, Photographs, no. 1, call number *MGZEA.
Photo by Paul Kolnik.
Silas Farley is a member of the New York City Ballet. He started dance training with Sal and Barbara Messina at the King David Christian Conservatory in Charlotte, North Carolina, at age seven. At the age of nine, he was accepted into the North Carolina Dance Theatre School of Dance (now Charlotte Ballet), where his teachers were NYCB alumna Patricia McBride, Kathryn Moriarty, and Mark Diamond. At the age of fourteen, Mr. Farley attended the summer course at the School of American Ballet (SAB), the official school of NYCB, and was then invited to enroll as a full-time student. Mr. Farley has also choreographed for SAB Choreography Workshops, the SAB Winter Ball, and the New York Choreographic Institute. In 2012 he was one of two advanced SAB students selected by Peter Martins for a student teaching pilot program at SAB. In August 2012, Mr. Farley became an apprentice with NYCB and joined the company as a member of the corps de ballet in August 2013.